Al Qaeda in Trouble in Iraq?
Some experts believe al Qaeda’s latest video shows desperation over their plight in Iraq.
A new video by al-Qaida’s deputy leader Thursday left no doubt about what the terror network claims is at stake in Iraq — describing it as a centerpiece of its anti-American fight and insisting the Iraqi insurgency is under its direct leadership. But the proclamations by Ayman al-Zawahri carried another unintended message: reflecting the current troubles confronting the Sunni extremists in Iraq, experts said.
The Islamic State of Iraq, the insurgent umbrella group that is claimed by al-Qaida, has faced ideological criticism from some militants, and rival armed groups have even joined U.S. battles against it. A U.S.-led offensive northwest of Baghdad — in one of the Islamic State’s strongholds — may have temporarily disrupted and scattered insurgent forces.
“Some of the developments suggest that it (the Islamic State) is more fragile than it was before,” said Bruce Hoffman, a Washington-based terrorism expert at the Rand Corp. think tank. Al-Zawahri “is trying to replenish the Islamic State brand,” he said. “It’s time to reassert its viability, but how connected to reality that is, is another issue.”
But al-Qaida in Iraq — the group that claims allegiance to Osama bin Laden’s goals — has been put on the defensive. Some Sunni insurgent groups have publicly split with it, distancing themselves from its bomb attacks on Iraqi civilians and accusing al-Qaida of trying to strong-arm their members into joining.
One influential faction, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, has openly helped U.S. forces in new offensives against al-Qaida in and around Baghdad, and some Sunni tribes have turned against it in western Anbar province. U.S. forces have focused on al-Qaida-linked fighters in their security clampdowns in Baghdad and so-called “belts” around the city in recent weeks. That has brought an increase in American casualties, but insurgent and militia attacks appear to have fallen.
Destroying the influence of Al Qaeda, or even foreign jihadists writ large, in Iraq is not going to end the insurgency. That cohort may well be the most violent faction and they may even be inciting more than their fair share of the sectarian discord. Still, there are plenty of indigenous, non-Islamist groups at work to continue the fight. Indeed, the fact that Republican Senators continue to bail on the war would seem to be further evidence that the insurgents are winning.
Beyond Iraq, the debate over al Qaeda’s strength as an international movement continues. Bruce Riedel‘s piece in the May/June Foreign Policy, for example, argues that they’re going gangbusters. It may well be an academic question, anyway. As Dave Schuler noted Monday on both his site and his OTB Radio appearance, though, the “al Qaeda” brand is a nebulous concept and both sides have incentive to use that name for propaganda purposes.